Q&A with author Kurt Ellis
Nal’ibali Column 4: Term 4 2019
Congratulations on your latest book, Kurt. Can you tell us a little about what to expect from it?
In the Midst of Wolves is a dark, psychological thriller set in Johannesburg. I intended to write a uniquely South African story with international appeal. It’s the story of a man struggling with his personal demons who must now battle the very real criminal demons that plague society. The reader will delve into the world of muti murders, African mysticism, police corruption, unethical journalism, loss of faith and the search for redemption.
If you’d like a taste of what you can expect from In the Midst of Wolves, please visit the Penguin Random House website and read the free short story titled Star Crossed. It’s a wonderful introduction to the main character, prior to the events that take place in the book.
It was your Grade 5 teacher who first spotted your talent. How did your parents react to their suggestion to buy you a typewriter?
They got me a typewriter. It was an ancient machine that I struggled to use, but I used it nonetheless, until the ribbon ran dry and we had no money to replace it. I actually still have some pages of other manuscripts I’d written on the device. My family has always been supportive of my writing. I’m very lucky with that.
Often teachers are fundamental in nurturing creativity in our children. What advice would you give to educators and parents caring for a child who loves storytelling?
Just let them be. Let your child be a little weird, let them think out of the box and let them create their own worlds. They may not end up as storytellers, but the creative thinking you’re nurturing will serve them well, even in the business world.
The tale of writing your very first book is an odyssey in itself. Against the odds, you wrote while still in school and often while working fulltime. Why was this goal so important to you?
It really wasn’t a choice for me. I didn’t consciously choose to write the story. It was more of a deep need to write. That’s what being a writer is, I think. It’s not a choice. Who in their right mind would choose to sit in front of a computer and write 100 000 words, then delete those words and do it again?
Were there any resources or organisations that helped you develop your talent, as well as pitch your first manuscript to prospective publishers?
Unfortunately, there was none. Or at least none I’d heard of. It was a matter of trial and error. I read every single book I could on how to write a proper manuscript. To be honest, I probably still get it wrong. I then had to learn where to find a publisher and how to approach them. I wish I’d had a resource. It would have made it so much easier. This is why I run creative writing workshops on weekends. Not only to help prospective writers improve their craft, but to also advise them on the long, lonely and sometimes painful road of finding a publisher.
Very often people are guided by American trends when buying new books. Why is it important that we value and are proud of our local publishing industry?
South Africa is bursting with incredible stories that need to be told. We have many great local writers who can tell them, but if the public doesn’t support local authors, their voices will never be heard. Their stories, which are our stories, will never be told. Many potentially great stories are never published because the buying market in South Africa is so small. The sad thing is that many of our most celebrated writers, names that people will instantly recognise, have to work other jobs to earn enough money to survive. This shouldn’t be happening. Writers and publishers are the voices of society, and we need your support.
In a country with so much talent, but also so many challenges around literacy, disposable income and access to resources, is there a need to change the way we see and market storytelling?
Most definitely. A lot of emphasis is given to maths and science as job-creating skills. I don’t disagree with that, but this is taking care of the mind and stomach. We’re ignoring the heart and soul, which is what storytelling nourishes.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org